From the manic dependence on Twitter polls that news shows have developed to an online store that makes money by selling pre-made “politician website templates,” there is plenty of evidence that American politics have been dragged fully into the virtual space. In fact, politicians are finally getting used to the wide-availability and instantaneousness that we demand from everything on the Internet. Yet, are we ready for the Internet to get involved in politics?
Google and Facebook – staples of almost every college student’s online time – are making moves to become more involved in the 2012 elections. Google and its subsidiary, YouTube, paired up with Fox News to co-sponsor last Thursday’s debate between Republican presidential candidates. Meanwhile, this week, Facebook is formally registering for a political action committee (PAC), an organization that can be used to collect large sums of money and donate them to federal elections.
Both actions have sparked political concern despite the companies doing what some could argue is fairly typical in the political landscape of 2011. Google has been involved in numerous political debates in the past, and it could be said that Facebook is just following in the footsteps of such information-age giants as Microsoft and Google, who formed PACs in 1998 and 2006, respectively. Yet, it is the context of these actions that have people so jumpy (especially online).
People love to use Facebook and Google (and YouTube) because they are bastions of populism. Despite the influence of marketing and commercialization, these websites are trusted tools because they promote what is the most popular and important to a majority of people, including those who have disconnected themselves from older forms of media. There is an assumed “purity” in what Facebook and Google will prioritize; that this information reflects the “will of the people.” In fact, this concept continues to field the publicly dormant, but important “net-neutrality” debates.
So when web-savvy voters see Google sponsoring an event featuring solely Republican candidates and working with Fox News, an organization whose conservative bias has been called into question many times before, there is talk of finding a new search engine to use. Concerns have been expressed about these Republicans or even just stories about the debate, which will be subtly boosted by Google to the top of any semi-related search.
Most individuals see Facebook as somewhere between a means to express themselves on a day-to-day basis to their peers, friends and family, and a simple time-sync. So it is an alarming idea that a random message to a college friend or few dollars spent on a Zynga game could in any way contribute to the endorsement of a political candidate or issues that they do not believe in.
There is also another, more “outsider” concern that has been similarly voiced by opponents of the Internet generation: that young folks who are used to clicking “like” and leaving three-word-comments on Facebook profiles 100 times a day are vapid, easily influenced and too impulsive to be involved in voting or politics of any kind. There is a concern that someday soon “What Hogwarts house are you in?” surveys will be replaced by one-click presidential voting.
I believe most of these fears are tenuous reactions that reflect distrust in anything political these days. Google’s involvement with the Republican debate was all about timing, as presidential primary debates are the only national-covered debates that could contain members of only one party; and as the incumbent president is running for re-election, there are no Democrat primary debates to “off-set” them. CNN, MSNBC and other media organizations have sponsored Republican primary debates this month as well. As for Facebook’s PAC, a company spokesmen told the New York Times that “FB PAC will give our employees a way to make their voice heard in the political process by supporting candidates who share our goals.”
So while self-serving, Facebook is not trying to diabolically mislead users into “accidental” political support or subvert the electoral college. Instead, you might get a message in your inbox to “Come join the Facebook vote.”
However, as using Facebook and Google has become as much a daily activity as brushing one’s teeth for this generation, these developments raise some interesting questions, especially in a society where the verb forms of either of these companies could be essentially defined as “to get information about.” Information is a powerful thing, in politics and elsewhere. In our lifetimes, we could witness a politician whose main platform is web privacy or even a war fought over Wikipedia.
Matt Mitchell may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org